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  1. William Burroughs, Junky This compelling autobiography of the leading Beat writer is for me reminder that gold often lies among the trash in the centre of the city dump. Years ago I sampled Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch, but gave up in despair at its incongruities, its sudden passages of brilliance being insufficient to compensate for what often seemed mind-wandering drivel. I thought I’d never touch Burroughs again. Junky, however is something else; its sad-eyed, intelligent and honest writing strikes a melancholy chord. I might even try him again. Like much American autobiography Junky captures the reader from the start with its tough no nonsense, stick to the facts approach to story-telling. Open the book at any page and you find passages like this: ‘I was in a cheap cantina off Dolores Street, Mexico City. I had been drinking for about two weeks. I was sitting in a booth with three Mexicans drinking tequila. The Mexicans were fairly well-dressed. One of them spoke English. A middle-aged, heavy-set Mexican with a sad, sweet sang songs and played the guitar.’ It’s difficult not to want to know more. Burroughs sets the scene, then focusses on one character, a well-dressed musician in a dive bar. What will happen? This deadpan, Hemingway style never becomes monotonous. The reader believes in the writer’s integrity and trusts him to tell it like it was. Of course, the writing is not as artless as it seems. As in Hemingway, in a story such as ‘The Killers’ the quietness conceals an underlying threat, a suggestion of desperation and violence. This is Mexico, dammit, and our narrator is a wily and possibly dangerous psychopath. The surprising thing about this notorious drug-fiend and burnt out literary genius is that he came from a highly respectable middle-class background, attended ‘one of the Big Three universities’ and later ‘saw a way of life, a vocabulary, references, a whole symbol system, as the sociologists say.’ Hence this prose in a paragraph from Burroughs’ Prologue is, compared to the rest of the narrative, sophisticated, well-muscled, just as sharp and cynical, but more inclined to elaboration, yet ending colloquially, ‘But these people were jerks … and I cooled off on the setup.’ I could guarantee that once you pick up this book, the Penguin edition of which bears the warning or invitation ‘Keep out of Children’s Reach,’ you will not easily put it down.
  2. Disappointment. I loved The Glorious Heresies and picked up this follow up with the highest hopes. I wish I hadn't. Because, the high points for The Glorious Heresies had been the blend of farce and crime; the balance between good people; inept people and bad people; the multiple viewpoints; the contrast between the Celtic Tiger and the organised crime. But these are all missing in The Blood Miracles. It is just a straight story of drug deals. The characters are the same - well some of them reappear, but then they only seem to come in two dimensions. For example, Ryan Cusack had been on the verge of choosing between an honest life and the easy money of crime. He was a gifted pianist with a possible future. But now he has chosen the path of darkness and his life is spent rustling up deals and trying to second guess who might be double crossing him. He bounces constantly between girls' beds and hoods' offices. Back and forth he goes - girl, office, girl, office with the occasional foray into a nightclub. It is boring. The boredom is not even relieved by cameo characters, because this is what everyone else is doing. The reader is supposed to care what happens to Ryan, and to care whether he ends up working for PJ or Dan - two identikit villains. And Ryan's dad Tony had been comically hopeless in the first novel, but now he is just deadweight for both Ryan and the plot. There is no sense of place, no sense of fun. Really very little to keep the reader turning the repetitive pages. All The Blood Miracles does is to cheapen the memory of The Glorious Heresies by flattening the original characters and dumbing down the original intrigue. I hope, for the next outing, Lisa McInerney finds a new story to tell with new people and, perhaps, new places. **000
  3. A Brief History of Seven Killings is not brief. Nor, strictly speaking, does the death toll end up at seven. Set in Jamaica (mostly – there are a couple of offshoots to Miami and New York), spanning the time frame 1976-1991, and featuring multiple stream of consciousness narrators, this is a complex novel. It interweaves drug gangs and politics; it blurs the lines between life and death (at least one of the narrators is a ghost); and the timelines are far from sequential. To further add to the confusion, many of the characters narrate in a bombor’asscloth patois peppered with expletives, short on verbs and generally not focused on illuminating the reader. At first there’s a temptation to try to keep on top of events, but it is a fool’s errand and it’s best to just acquiesce, read it through and let the words wash over you. Some of it will make sense and some of it won’t. Perhaps the reader is meant to be viewing the world through a ganja haze – maybe through a cocaine hight or a heroin hit. This all adds to the atmosphere, but it does make for a mightily long and sometimes repetitive story. The story, such as it is, focuses on an attempt to assassinate Bob Marley (known as The Singer) when he made a tentative foray into Jamaican politics in 1976. The rationale behind the hit is never fully clear; the circumstances emerge only slowly; and the aftermath pans out over 15 years. This suggests a political thriller, and there is some early involvement of CIA characters, but really it is more about gangs and sleaze. Politics in Jamaica is shown as just an extension of gang turf wars with political office being either the laurels for achievement on the international stage; or the spoils obtained by being the biggest baddie in town. There is little attempt to govern and attempts to get Jamaica to swing to the West (USA) or the East (Cuba) are going to fail in a great sea of inertia borne of drugs and violence. One of the particularly striking features of Brief History is the fixation on bottoms. I am sure Marlon James has been faithful to Jamaican dialogue (or monologue), but it does seem to have bottoms and nether regions everywhere. For a country in which homosexuality is supposed to be the ultimate taboo, people seem to spend a lot of time talking about it. This is just one of the features of the book that outstays its welcome. And goodness me, how it does keep on going, yet without ever actually getting anywhere. I don’t want to give away the plot, but it ends with a bit of a whimper after seeming to keep going on life support for most of its passing. Sure, it builds the sense of place and there is some intrigue towards the end, but at huge cost in terms of time and attention span. Perhaps it is that the characters are too similar, or that the use of patois renders them all a bit two dimensional. There doesn’t seem to be much life beyond the pages of the book. Characters have little history and don’t quite seem to have real lives. They are too much a sum of their actions on the page. Overall, Brief History is a brave novel that has some real strengths. It will, I am sure, leave a lasting impression. It does evoke a sense of place: Jamaica, its ghettoes, its garbage lands, the use of music as an escape, the drugs, the feeling of being trapped in paradise. But the novel fishes too much in the same pond as Ryan Gattis’s All Involved (gang warfare during riots in Los Angeles) and, I’m afraid, Ryan Gattis does it better. ***00
  4. Ned Beauman is a quirky, inventive writer. He writes with an immediacy, a sense of playful ness. Much of his material is quite surreal and ever-so-stylised. So with Glow, we find ourselves in a pastiche of an urban lad-lit novel. Young men hop from bedsit to bedsit doing drugs all night and crashing in cafes all the day. They sleep around and don’t have proper jobs. You know the genre. Unlike the pulp fiction it emulates, Glow buries itself in huge pharmacological levels of detail and includes surreal undercurrents involving white vans, foxes and Burma. Add to this a chap called Raf who has a rare sleep disorder causing him to operate on a 25 hour cycle, a pirate radio station, a Staffie called Rose and a heap of soundproofed warehouses popping up all over the place. It’s mad. After engaging the reader for about half the novel, where intricate conspiracies within conspiracies just about stay intelligible, the novel just gets too clever for its own good. One paradigm shift too many and the reader is lost, bewildered and there’s no way back. The bluffs within bluffs within bluffs are technically incredible, but end up disengaging the reader. It’s a pity, because at its heart there is a good novel trying to break out. The back story of multi-nationals shafting Burmese farmers; the corporate greed and cynicism; the industrial espionage could have worked if only it had stayed within some sort of limits. The ending is a whimper – two codas tacked on that don’t seem to lead anywhere or originate from anywhere. Clearly some significant changes have happened, but they happened in a drug fuelled blur and it feels like a cop out. The ideas make the whole novel worth reading (just about), but it is liable to leave the reader feeling frustrated that the execution was not as elegant as the concept. ***00
  5. Discuss Ablutions. You are reading Patrick de Witt's first novel on the strength of his Booker shortlisted Sisters Brothers. You are drawn to the cover; it looks similar to the Sisters Brothers. It isn't. You find yourself in a bar, somewhere in America. Probably Los Angeles. You aren't quite clear where. You view the world through an alcoholic haze, drinking free Jameson's Irish Whiskey in a bar where few people seem to pay for their drinks. You are pouring the drinks even though, it seems, you are not the barman. Discuss the customers. They include a child TV star who has fallen for the drink. There's a coke dealer. There are teachers. There's a psychic. There are hookers. Plus there are the doormen, the South African bar manager and a wannabe film director. In fact, it seems you're the only one who has never had ambitions in Hollywood. You're just living for the next drink or the next hit of coke. Your story is barely coherent. Mostly just fragments and snippets that might fall together into a plot, if only your life actually had a plot. Of course there is some element of continuity, it's just you can't find the direction. You've got to like second person narration - a device which is irritating at best. You've got to just stick with things, however they go. You've got to appreciate the atmosphere even if the story and characterisation are a bit thin. Then, and only then, are you going to get something from Ablutions. Otherwise you'll find it a depressing, repetitive and dull affair. ***00
  6. Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil's debut novel, was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker prize, although as I recall considered a rank outsider to win. It certainly has the kind of elements that might turn the heads of some prize judging panels. It is stylistically experimental, with a first sentence running to six pages, even longer than it seems in the context of what is a fairly short novel. It is epic in scope, covering thirty years in the history of Bombay's (never Mumbai) opium smoking classes, and examining the lives of a variety of characters, from Mr Lee, who flees communist China's Cultural Revolution and winds up running a drug den, to the wealthy high caste Hindi Rumi, Muslim dealer Khaled and the novel's central focus, eunuch prostitute DImple. Thayil's poetic language suits the dreaminess of opiated states, which is occasionally punctuated by hideous squalor and inventive swearing, much like I imagine junkie life itself must be. The novel itself is appropriately plotless, drifting along and tuning in to the stories of Dimple, Khaled, Rumi, Mr Lee and other denizens of Bombay's Shuklaji Street. As a backdrop, we see the city's transformation from 1970s stop on the hippie trail to the dawn of the 21st century, with call centres and night clubs infiltrating the street. Opium moves onto the more damaging heroin and from there to the shiny modernity and narcissism of cocaine. If one wanted to stretch a point, one could argue the changes in Shuklaji Street are meant to reflect the changes in India as a whole during the time span the novel depicts. Narcopolis is probably not a novel for everyone - steer clear if strong language, filth and hard drugs are not to your taste - but has many seductive qualities.
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